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Gloss masquerading as substance, July 2 2003
This book tells in alternate chapters the story of a day in the lives of three women at different times: writer Virginia Woolf struggling with her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" in 1923, unhappy wife Laura Brown clinging to sanity by reading that same novel around 1949, and Clarissa Vaughan, a New York book editor in the present who's throwing a party just like the fictional Mrs. Dalloway.
Enough rave reviews have been written about this novel so that the whole world and its mother thinks it's magnificent. I think that the author's undeniable feel for significant, character-defining details may be here mistaken for profundity. The novel's main characters are all unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives but don't know why (except Woolf, who has a legitimate reason - she's gradually going mad).
Clarissa is rich, as she tells you. She lives in an enviable apartment in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood. She doesn't have a worry greater than the right choice of clothes or flowers. Laura and her husband own a new house and a convertible; she gets to stay home and bake cakes. Not bad for 1949. Virginia and her husband own a small printing company so she can publish her own books. Maybe a couple of weeks in a third world country would enlighten these women as to how privileged they are. They are not only self-important, self-absorbed and pathologically self-preoccupied but view the people outside their charmed circle with condescension and disdain. Clarissa walks the streets of New York noticing the ugliness and vulgarity of everyone, especially "foreign drivers who believe women should walk three paces behind their husbands." How sad that such lesser creatures must share the city with Clarissa and her elite crowd, people who buy $400 shirts without thinking twice and whose earth-shaking views and decisions deal mainly with where to dine and what party to attend.
Woolf comes across as a snobbish prig, eyeing her servants with barely controlled disgust at their stupidity and commonness. She delights sadistically in giving them overly difficult, unnecessary tasks that are as humiliating as they are trivial. She sees her sister as insensitive and shallow. You feel that this Virginia is an insufferable snob, trapped in the suburbs (horror!), away from glamorous, intellectual London (where she rightfully belongs), lamenting that no one is clever or worthy enough to appreciate or understand her, the literary genius.
What I find most distracting and indeed insufferably irritating about this book is the author's need to make practically every character in the story gay. Clarissa is gay and lives with Sally who is gay. So are all the people in New York, at least those whom Clarissa knows: Richard, the AIDS-afflicted former lover for whom she's throwing the party, is gay. Julia, her daughter by artificial insemination, is gay. Julia's older friend Mary, is gay. Louis, who was briefly Clarissa's lover (and then Richard's), is gay. Walter Hardy, a writer of homosexual potboilers, is gay. He takes care of Evan, who's gay. Oliver St. Ives, famous movie star, is gay. You get the idea...
Those few characters who are not overtly gay have gay tendencies. That includes Virginia (whose entire gay reputation hinges on the fact that she slept twice with Vita Sackville-West and didn't like it). Laura has gay tendencies and her son Ritchie will grow up to be gay. Only her husband Dan is straight and that's because he has to be shown as everything Laura wants to get away from (although he's a good person). Eventually we expect homosexuality to be conferred on everything in the novel, including pets and inanimate objects.
It's as if Victor Hugo had decided that every character in "Notre Dame de Paris" had to be a hunchback or if Tolstoy had made every person in "Anna Karenina" have a scandalous extramarital affair. Eventually it just gets too tedious.
Mr. Cunningham (who I'm told is gay) appears to believe that the way to validate a character's lifestyle is to make everyone else in a story share the same inclinations. Strength does not lie in numbers but in the certainty and integrity of one's convictions. If you're a vegetarian you don't need to fantasize that everyone else is one in order to feel that you're doing the right thing. Furthermore, whereas the real Virginia Woolf wrote about affluent society whilst keeping a distance that allowed her to acutely question and criticize such a world (one of the things that make her a great writer), Mr. Cunningham is unable to keep any distance whatsoever from this insulated and privileged milieu because he thoroughly belongs to it and thus identifies with it. A glossy but ultimately shallow novel, and a narcissistic work for a narcissistic time.